Rhodes takes aim at Oates' target of better control

March 15, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Arthur Rhodes is growing up. He is more confident. More comfortable. More of everything that goes into that intangible quality that baseball executives call "good makeup."

Now, if he would just throw a few more strikes, the picture -- and the pitcher -- would be complete. Then the Orioles just might have the best fifth starter in the league.

"That's all he needs," said manager Johnny Oates, who watched Rhodes struggle through 3 1/3 innings in the Orioles' 5-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds last night. "I want him to be consistent and not keep the defense on the field too long. We need Arthur to have 15- to 18-pitch innings."

It is a simple formula, but it has not been a simple matter. Rhodes has flashed his talent on occasion, but consistency is not a word that is thrown around much in reference to him. In parts of three seasons at the major-league level, he is 12-14 with a 5.50 ERA.

Last night's start was not a watershed event, but in the context of the Orioles' recent pitching problems, it was important for Rhodes to begin displaying something more than just good velocity and so-so control. He did that, though the results were mixed.

Oates asked for a few low-pitch innings -- or, loosely translated, a few easy innings. Rhodes threw 31 pitches in the top of the first and gave up two runs on four hits, but bounced back to pitch more efficiently the next two innings.

He left with the bases loaded in the fourth after throwing 79 pitches and giving up seven hits.

If an 18-pitch average seems overly restrictive, Oates has the math to back up his theory.

"If you go three innings and throw a total of 40 pitches," he said, "that's a 120-pitch complete game. That's where I start cutting guys off. If you're having 20-pitch innings, that's 180 pitches over nine innings and there's just no way."

The pitch count isn't everything, of course. There are pitchers who can get through nine innings on 90 pitches. There are others who need to throw 140. Oates is particularly sensitive to the effect of too many pitches on the defense and on the arms in his rotation.

At best, an inefficient pitcher puts the players behind him to sleep. At worst, an excessive pitch count can follow a pitcher through the season, as an early-season 141-pitch performance by Mike Mussina did last year.

Mussina went well over Oates' 120-pitch limit during a May 16 game against the Detroit Tigers in which he struck out 14 to tie an Orioles record. He struggled the rest of the season with shoulder and back problems that he traced to that game.

"I take responsibility for letting Mike throw 140 pitches in cold weather," Oates said. "My baseball instincts tell me that was the start. The fight [against the Seattle Mariners on June 6] may have contributed to it. The rainy night in Boston may have contributed to it. But I feel that was the start."

It is a mistake that Oates does not want to make again, especially in a year when there is precious little depth to back up the five starters in the projected rotation. But he may face that temptation if the bullpen continues to struggle the way it has during the first two weeks of the exhibition season.

"Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] jokingly asked me if I'm going to try to break Billy Martin's complete-game record," Oates said.

Martin gained a dubious reputation for overworking a promising group of young Oakland Athletics starters in the early 1980s. Oates insists he will not let that happen here.

"Sid [Fernandez] is going to have some high-pitch innings," he said, "but I'm not looking for as many innings out of Sid. He's like [Rick] Sutcliffe in a way."

Rhodes has the strength and durability to throw a lot of pitches, but the quality of his performance seems to depend on his ability to throw a lot of strikes.

There have been at least a couple of occasions during the past three years that Oates and Bosman have played psychological hardball to get him to throw the ball over the plate.

He has responded to a couple of throw-strikes-or-else ultimatums, but still has not established himself as a dependable starting pitcher.

"He accepts a challenge," Oates said, "and we have challenged him a few times, but you can't do that too much."

Rhodes thinks that the time has come, and perhaps it is all aboutconfidence anyway.

"I've told Johnny and Bos, it's going to be a great year for me," he said last night. "I'm planning to go out and have fun."

TC

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